THE UNIVERSITY AND COLLEGE UNION (UCU) is in an extraordinary, and escalating, crisis after its annual congress was shut down by the most senior elected officials in the union when delegates voted repeatedly to discuss motions concerning accountability.
The first (motion 10) from Exeter branch called for the general secretary to resign, arguing that her role in ending the strongest and most active strike in the union’s history, against the wishes of most reps and a very large minority of members, showed a serious democratic deficit in the union. The second (motion 11) from Kings College London branch, sought to censure the general secretary for the same reason.
The motions reflected widespread anger. More than 16,000 joined the union in the last year, with some branches involved in the university pension dispute seeing increases of 50% and hundreds on picket lines and ‘teach-outs’ in the snow at the height of the 14 days of strike action. We looked set to win as students joined us and vice chancellors crumbled. A thousand strikers mobilised to lobby for #nocapitulation in less than 24 hours when the general secretary first pushed an unacceptable deal, before getting more concessions in her second attempt. In FE more moderate increases in membership have also taken place with escalating pay strikes breaking the hardline position of the employer, the Association of Colleges, of just a 1% pay rise.
The motions were properly submitted - representing the views of the members of the branches that discussed and submitted them according to the rules. The elected committee (CBC) who have the task of checking rules found them to be in order. Other motions calling for the election of more officials and a democracy review were initially ruled out of order as possibly affecting staff terms and conditions. However, motions 10 and 11, addressing only the general secretary, our most senior elected representative, were ruled in order.
Motion 10 would have been voted down as both the Independent Broad Left (IBL), who back the general secretary, and the UCU Left would have voted against. Additionally the congress has no power to enforce a call for her to resign as it does not employ her - so, even if passed, motion 10 would only have amounted to political pressure. Such was the strength of feeling about the democratic deficit that the democracy review motion was voted back onto the order paper when congress opened - provoking a staff walkout from congress that was happily resolved by some amendments to the motions to satisfy everyone.
The crisis in our union has arisen as a result of the complete determination by the IBL faction to slap down any criticism of the general secretary by bureaucratic manoeuvres rather than political debate. They were worried about the censure motion and other motions pushing for more accountability.
This is not staff vs UCU members. The IBL believes that just hearing these motions would amount to bullying (censure) or constructive dismissal (no confidence/resign) because they did not go through staff disciplinary process. It is on this basis that the staff (organised in Unite) walkouts took place, the IBL demonstrated and the president shut congress. A growing majority of delegates, who repeatedly voted to reject this position, believe that this is not a staff conduct issue but is rather about the membership’s right to politically criticise choices made by the general secretary in her representative function.
The right to hold elected representatives to account is fundamental. The bureaucratic manoeuvres - unseen last minute legal advice; referral to a complaints procedure where the IBL president alone, without appeal, decided the issue; a Joint Negotiating Committee negotiation in which the general secretary’s Unite union reps discussed with the general secretary’s UCU appointees and decided we could not hear the motions - simply made delegates more determined not to give in.
The closure of congress - with most motions not discussed - has not ended the crisis, as delegates succeeded in voting for emergency motions asserting our right to hold elected reps to account and a recall congress to finish our business.